Q: How long should one grind coffee beans? I'm breaking in a new grinder. Years ago I read that Starbucks ground their beans for 23 seconds and I did that. In the new grinder, 23 seconds turns the beans to dust.
—Paddy Meehan, Chicago
A: Timing is always a problem — whether grinding coffee, baking a cake or fry some chicken. Too many people take the time suggested too literally — they stick to it, as you did, until the coffee beans turn to dust, the cake is only half-baked and the chicken fried way past crisp.
You need to think of time as only a suggestion, as an approximation of what it will take to get the job done. If your new grinder gets your beans ground the way you like them in 10 or 16 or 20 seconds, go with that.
Just how finely you should grind the coffee depends on what you use to brew it. A percolator takes a coarse grind; an espresso pot uses a very fine grind. The Starbucks website (starbucks.com) recommends "a very fine grind, 30-35 seconds in a blade grinder" for coffee used in an espresso machine. Not sure what grind to use? Ask your coffee vendor or check the manufacturer's instructions provided by your coffee maker.
Your timing will also be impacted by the grinder you use. Models vary. There are blade grinders the whirr like little food processors and burr grinders, in which the bean is ground between two grinding plates; the latter type is more expensive but is said to produce a more uniform grind.
To ensure the best tasting coffee, "The New Food Lover's Companion" recommends you buy fresh whole coffee beans and grind only enough beans to brew a pot of coffee. Whole beans can be stored in an "airtight container in a cool, dry place" for up to 2 weeks, the Companion notes, while whole beans may be frozen for up to 3 months. Ground coffee should be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks; ground coffee stored at room temperature will begin "to go stale in a couple of days."
Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.